The Spaces Between
So I'm going to confess something to you all now: I'm kind of bored with No Man's Sky.
It pains me to say this because I think it has real merit and singular vision, and I don't want this review to devolve into a conversation about whether games need danger and combat to be interesting. But I personally find grinding for resources to be desperately boring, and that's pretty much what No Man's Sky boils down to. I stopped playing Stardew Valley - a much more interesting game - for the same reason.
What it comes down to is that No Man's Sky is not nearly as varied and interesting as it seems to suggest. Its basic loop involves jumping into a star system; scanning for facilities or resource caches; visiting a sad little bunker that may or may not have an alien residing in it, mining some resources, and heading to the next system to do it all over again. It's repetition writ large.
The planets themselves aren't especially interesting either. No Man's Sky's stylized graphics have the effect of making planets blend together, with lush planets being surprisingly hard to distinguish from barren rocks. None of the planets pop nearly as much as the various screenshots seem to suggest.
I've only been moved to really explore a planet on a couple occasions. On one, I was fleeing some sentinels - irritating floating droids that will occasionally pop out and attack on high-security planets - and unexpectedly fell into a rich cave system. I was both surprised and intrigued, and wound up spending the next half hour wandering around and grabbing resources; though, as usual, I was limited by my painfully small inventory (one thing I've discovered: You can upgrade your inventory. But it's still too small).
On the other occasion, I found myself on a low-security planet with an easily accessible market terminal - perfect for selling resources. I would up hopping from waypoint beacon to waypoint beacon collecting resources, cataloguing animals, and just soaking it all in. I wound up liking the planet so much that I named it after my girlfriend.
Mostly, though, the planets have blended together as I've visited one non-descript location after another. The aliens change, but the stations they inhabit are the same. The terrain isn't all that interesting to look at. There are lots of upgrades to build, but they've been mostly left to rot because I don't want to waste inventory space on marginal upgrades for my multi-tool's reload time. No Man's Sky's most exciting moment is when you finally save up enough money for a new ship; which takes a lot of grinding for resources, but is very much worth it.
Otherwise, it's mostly collecting resources for the sake of collecting resources. A huge chunk of No Man's Sky is carving up rocks and either selling them off or using them to gas up your ship. Without the urgency or danger of other survival games - or the prospect of building up a really cool building like in Stardew Valley - the resource collection feels rote and boring.
What's kept me going is the mystery of No Man's Sky's intergalactic roadtrip. Presented with a choice between following the route to "The Atlas" - a series of spaceborne alien monoliths - and journeying to the center of the galaxy, I've opted for the semi-religious experience of the Atlas. I'm actually really interested in what awaits me at the end of my journey. I just wish that the road were more interesting.
But that's the weakness of procedurally-generated games, I suppose. What you gain in scope you lose in bespoke planets, creatures, and scenarios. Hello Games is a small studio; and in many respects, what they've accomplished is remarkable. But it's easy to see the template from which No Man's Sky sprung, which has the effect of rendering its scope moot. Who cares how large the universe is when everything looks pretty much the same? Its drab landscapes and tiny settlements remind me in some ways of childhood summers spent staring at empty farmland as we drove to my grandmother's house in North Dakota.
I think No Man's Sky is really on to something with its serene but lonely atmosphere, its massive scale, and its mysterious journey. But as usual, scale is one thing; it's filling in the gaps that's another. And like Elite Dangerous, No Man's Sky struggles in that regard.
On the Subject of Multiplayer
Before I wrap up this update, I feel like I should touch on the subject of No Man's Sky's online functionality, which has been the topic of some debate among the community (to say the least).
Hello Games has been at pains to stress that No Man's Sky is not a multiplayer game and shouldn't be treated as such. Nevertheless, comments by Sean Murray have led some to assume that No Man's Sky is akin to an MMORPG in which players can meet up with one another. There was much disappointment when two players attempted to meetup in the same space station and couldn't see on another.
Hello Games has responded by reiterating that No Man's Sky is a single-player game, and that its online features are more easter eggs than anything else (though Murray has occasionally been less than clear on this point). In a way, it's a little disappointing because it would be pretty cool if No Man's Sky were akin to Dark Souls (or Elite Dangerous), with players able to leave messages for one another or explore the galaxy together. But it's pretty clear that No Man's Sky is not that game, and was never meant to be.
Indeed, No Man's Sky's sense of isolation is so central to its atmosphere that it seem counter-productive to have other players running around. Sure, you sometimes run into alien NPCs, and you can name planets and animals, but you are meant to feel like you are on a lonely journey to... somewhere. Journey managed to incorporate anonymous multiplayer into its structure while retaining that sense of loneliness. No Man's Sky has opted to go another route.
What's clear to me is that Hello Games has a very specific vision for this game, which is to send players on a pilgrimage through a massive and fully-explorable galaxy, and they've never really strayed from that vision. It could be denser and more interesting; but in the end, No Man's Sky is pretty much what it said it would be from the start, and that means no multiplayer.